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Giovanni Villani

Florentine historian, b. about 1276; d. of the plague in 1348

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Villani, GIOVANNI, Florentine historian, b. about 1276; d. of the plague in 1348. Descended from a wealthy family of merchants, he devoted the whole of his life to commerce, being a member of the Peruzzi company and afterwards of the Bonaccorsi. Business took him to Flanders, on three occasions; like a good Florentine he took part in politics, was priore several times, and served as an official of the zecca, or mint, where he introduced some wise changes. He was thrice entrusted with the maintenance of the fortifications. In 1341 he was one of the hostages given by the Florentines to Ferrara in pledge for the money to be paid for the purchase of Lucca. The failure of the Peruzzi bank, in 1346, occasioned by the insolvency of the Kings of England and of Sicily, caused Villani’s imprisonment. At Rome in 1300 Villani conceived the idea of writing the history, or chronicle, of Florence, which he divided into twelve books. He begins with the Tower of Babel, passes rapidly over the history of Rome and Italy, to the year 1080, but treats the history of Tuscany more minutely. For the periods of which he has no direct knowledge he follows his authorities without much discernment. But from the middle of the thirteenth century his chronicle becomes an excellent historical source; even in its style one perceives that the author now feels on firm ground. Errors are not entirely absent even here; but his own experience of the world, the facilities which the commercial relations of Florence afforded him for obtaining trustworthy information of foreign events, the close connection of Florentine politics with the politics of all Italy, the Empire, and France, his own share in the government of the city, were circumstances highly favorable to the work of the historian. Unlike most medieval historians, Villani is interested in the economic life both of the State and of private individuals. He records statistical data, informs us of the cost of provisions, and gives details of the finances of the State. Thus he may be considered the most modern of the medieval historians. Although a Guelph and a Black, he does not disguise his disapproval of wrong done by his own party. He is devoted to the Church, including the temporal government of the pope; yet he has bitter things to say of Boniface VIII, the supporter of the Blacks. His greatest defect, is in his method of exposition, which fails to coordinate the various facts from one point of view—a defect, however, pardonable in a man occupied in commerce. His chronicle was brought down to the year 1363 by his younger brother Matteo, and to 1410 by Filippo, Matteo’s son. The best edition of the “Cronica” is that of Magheri (Florence, 1823), preceded by biographical notices.


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